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10 Photos: Discovering Bangkok, Thailand

Jan. 02, 2016
8 min read
10 Photos: Discovering Bangkok, Thailand
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Our “10 Photos” essays include tips on exploring destinations, redeeming for hotels, flights and more — and here, TPG Contributor Kelsy Chauvin takes us on a tour of Thailand's bustling capital, Bangkok. You can see more of her travel images on Instagram and Twitter. (All photos by the author.)

On my first trip to Bangkok, I hoped to find delicious food, stay as cool as possible in the legendary humidity and see some spectacular temples — but beyond that, I was simply willing to embrace the unexpected.

The view from luxury high-rise hotels in the Bang Rak district along the Chao Phraya River make Bangkok look calm and peaceful.

My first stop was the Bang Rak District, a commercial neighborhood along the Chao Phraya River that's home to a cluster of high-end points hotels — scroll down to the bottom for more on Bangkok hotel rates, redemptions and perks. The river views here are nothing short of delightful.

Bangkok is famous for its traffic, and that reputation is well deserved. I won’t soon forget that first evening traffic jam when my cab driver decided to zip across to the oncoming lanes and hit the gas, zooming up a few dozen car lengths before we edged back into the proper lane — not a moment too soon. On another trip, though, I spent an hour in near-gridlocked traffic, inching all of one block until things gradually cleared up. Good times.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX, is celebrated throughout the country, including the Hua Lamphong Rail Station.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX, is celebrated throughout the country, including in the Hua Lamphong Rail Station.

Sure, taxis are dirt cheap and, therefore, super tempting. But for those less interested in risking their lives or their precious travel time, the Bangkok MRT (metro) is utterly amazing. It’s swift, frequent, cheap and incredibly clean. Not to mention it's easy to navigate with English wayfinding.

At markets like Chatuchak, push your comfort zone with tasty delights, often served on skewers.

One of my first stops — via Metro — was to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. At 35 acres and with more than 8,000 market stalls, it’s among the biggest markets most of us will ever see. That includes all 200,000 shoppers who flock here every weekend who are looking to buy, quite literally, everything. You can buy souvenirs for everyone you’ve ever met in your whole life, plus electronics, housewares, accessories, jewelry, textiles, pets and things to feed your pets.

Bold tourists can to interact with market wildlife.

Chatuchak's fish, insects and reptiles zone alone is enough for a fascinating nature documentary — as long as you're okay with really big snakes.

Boat noodles are among the best local staples and should not be missed.

Cash (in the form of Thai bahts) is the preferred mode of bargaining at Chatuchak and beyond — and you should be prepared to haggle. But the best reason to head here is the food, as there’s one delicious kiosk after another, all offering incredibly low prices. You'll find fresh, yummy pad thai and other familiar dishes, as well as boat noodles — a Thai staple made of rice noodles in broth, meat and loads of garlic, bean sprouts and fresh herbs. Expect to pay about $1-$2 for a bowl, and even less for a Thai iced coffee or tea.

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Buddhist monks stand out among the city's beautiful wats, or monastery-temples.

With the Chao Phraya right there, Bangkok is a great city for water transit. From Bang Rak and other riverside districts, you can hire a ferry or longtail boat (serving as water taxi) to many points of interest. One of the biggies is Wat Arun, an awe-striking Buddhist temple in the Yai district on the west bank in central Bangkok. (Say what?: A “wat” is a monastery-temple.)

Meaning “Temple of Dawn,” Wat Arun in its present form dates back to the early 19th century, though a temple has stood on this site since the 14th century. Minuscule porcelain tiles and shells adorn its 250-foot-tall central tower (or “prang”) and four surrounding stupas, and you can climb its steep stairs for a dose of vertigo from its wee balcony.

Just FYI, don't come underdressed upon entering any temple (especially not in Daisy Dukes).

Head back across the river to visit to the marvelous Grand Palace, home to every Thai king since 1782. That includes King Bhumibol Adulyadej, aka Rama IX, the ninth monarch of the Chakri Dynasty — the country’s longest-serving head of state and longest-reigning monarch in Thai history, who has been in power since June 9, 1946.

Details at the Grand Palace are constantly being preserved, protected and perfected.

The Grand Palace occupies about 60 acres, and in addition to its amazing courts, residences, ceremonial hall and royal offices, it’s also where you can visit Wat Phra Kaew. It’s home to the famous Emerald Buddha, discovered in northern Thailand in 1434 AD and made of solid green jade. Just north of the Grand Palace at Wat Pho, don’t miss the famous, gilded 151-foot-long Reclining Buddha.

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market attracts locals and a whole lot of tourists – and it's worth it.

Bangkok has rich history, abundant eateries and vast shopping opportunities. But one worthwhile jaunt about an hour away is the singular Damnoen Saduak Floating Market. You can join a tour or head there on your own to climb aboard a colorful longtail boat through lushly tree-lined canals, finally disembarking at this colorful century-old market. True, it’s busy with tourists these days, but this experience is still worthwhile and you won’t find better deals on spices and less-edible mementos.

Gilded head dresses and other accoutrements are key to traditional Thai performance and culture.

Visiting Bangkok

Arrive: Travel time from the US to Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) is about 17 hours from the West Coast, 22 hours from Chicago and 20 hours from the East Coast. Flights from North America tend to route through Singapore (SIN), Tokyo (NRT and HND), Seoul (ICN) or Hong Kong (HKG) on the following airlines:

Oneworld — Cathay Pacific, British Airways and Qantas
SkyTeam — KLM, Korean Air and Air France
Star Alliance — Thai Airways, United, Singapore Airlines, Asiana and Air China

Stay: If you want to use your Starpoints in Bangkok, you're spoiled for choice. Be sure to see Lori Zaino's reviews of the riverside Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel (starts at $115 or 7,000 points per night) and the W Bangkok (starts at $150 or 10,000 points per night); Eric Rosen's review of the St. Regis Bangkok (starts at $200 or 20,000 points per night); and TPG's review of Le Mèridien Bangkok (starts at $102 or 7,000 points per night).

Two of Bangkok's most luxurious properties — both in the Bang Rak district — are listed with American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts, so cardholders of the Platinum Card® from American Express and The Business Platinum Card® from American Express (as well as the Centurion card), enjoy special benefits at each when booking through the Amex FHR portal. Reserve three consecutive nights at the Peninsula Bangkok and get the third night free, as well as early check-in/late check-out, daily breakfast, complimentary lunch or dinner for two and a room upgrade (when available) upon arrival. Rates start at $250 per night. At the Mandarin Oriental, most of the same perks apply, but instead of complimentary lunch or dinner for two, the cardholder gets a $100 spa credit. For more on this property, see Leigh Rowan's review. Rates start at about $330 per night.

Spend: Credit cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Citi Prestige don’t charge foreign transaction fees, making them ideal to use on a trip to Bangkok. To see more cards without these fees, check out our post, Top Credit Cards With No Foreign Transaction Fees.

For more on Bangkok, be sure to see:

Destination of the Week: Bangkok
5 Peaceful Spots in Busy Bangkok
12 Tips for Your First Trip to Southeast Asia